Friday, March 13, 2009

Walled Off

Everywhere I go these days I see people who have walled themselves off from our world. You know what I mean, the people you see on the street with headphones on or cell phones at their ear, totally oblivious to all around them. You can tell by their eyes. They never meet yours as you pass them, but seem to be focused on some distant, invisible universe.

Thanks to the miracle of electronic miniaturization, almost everyone you see on the street is listening to music or the radio, talking on their cell phones, or riding in their cars on a beautiful day with both music and windows up.

Way back in the horse-and-buggy days, horses were forced to wear blinders. These were little flaps that were mounted alongside each of the horse’s eyes, blocking its peripheral vision. They could only see things that were in front of their heads, and the direction their heads pointed was controlled by the reins.

That was done so the horse wouldn’t be distracted by other horses and the general chaos of busy streets. The horses saw only what the driver wanted them to see. Put differently, people couldn’t exploit the strength of their horses unless they controlled what the horses saw. Without blinders, the horse might go where it wanted instead of obeying the driver’s commands.

Now that portable communications and entertainment devices are as common as cat droppings, our electro-toys have become our electro-blinders. These virtual blinders serve to isolate us from our surroundings, save for a narrow focus on a selected range of topics. And as with horse blinders, it is the drivers who determine the direction of our gaze.

And guess who the drivers are: The vast and interlocking corporate behemoths that, together, make most of the important decisions about our lives and our world. They know that the best way to continue swindling us out of our money and our freedom is to keep us perpetually diverted.

Or, as the Roman satirist, Juvenal, observed almost two thousand years ago:

... Already long ago, from when we sold our vote to no man,

the People have abdicated our duties; for the People who once upon a time

handed out military command, high civil office, legions - everything, now

restrains itself and anxiously hopes for just two things: bread and circuses.

In other words, as long as there’s an ample supply of trivial entertainment to be had, and there isn’t mass hunger, people won’t pay much attention to what their ‘drivers’ are doing.

Once they’ve succeeded in smashing the traditional ties of family, clan and community, that void can be filled with an endless array of diversions, from corporate pop music to video games to airhead history programs on TV’s many ‘Hitler Channels,’ portable video, spectator sports, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseam.

Even the political process is made into a spectacle, with elections and fundraising treated like horseraces and political discourse taking the form of ‘square-offs’ between hostile partisans, a sort of political cock-fight. (Pun intended.)

Indeed, it seems that our media proxies do all of our socializing and discussing for us. Think about it. In the old days, the talk around the water cooler was usually gossip about people in the workplace or community. Nowadays, water cooler gossip is about fictional characters on TV shows. You’ll hear discussions about their peccadilloes as if they were real people known to the speakers.

Same goes for sports. Most of the commentary sounds like the living room banter of the viewers. Talk shows too. It’s as if they’re having our conversations for us so we don’t have to go to the trouble of getting together and talking with our friends. We can have them all alone with our TV and radio ‘friends.’

This may not seem particularly sinister but remember, all of these are commercial media. Most of them are supported directly by advertisers’ dollars and the rest—like recorded music, movies and video games—are made by huge, interlocking conglomerates that have a big stake in preserving the status quo.

All of them depend on getting us to buy more stuff. Not only that, the system demands that corporations increase their profits (or try to) each year. So even if they make the same tidy sum every year, that isn’t enough. They must strive to make their money-piles larger and larger. And that means constant pressure, relentless propaganda aimed at getting us to purchase more and more each year.

Billions are spent on the most sophisticated non-coercive mind control techniques known to humanity, namely, advertising. And that propaganda is embedded in almost everything we see.

In the movies and on TV, the happiest people are usually the ones who have the neatest stuff. The smartest people are the savviest consumers. The reason the characters are idly sipping Diet Coke and driving Jeep Cherokees is because these companies paid the producers to put them there. When you buy or rent a DVD, there are advertisements trying to get you to buy or rent more DVDs.

The very survival of these corporate behemoths depends upon conning us into believing that our lives are incomplete unless we buy their products or use their services. We won’t be liked, won’t get laid, and people are laughing at us behind our backs unless we’re buying (literally!) the consumerist myth: that happiness and acceptance demand an unending supply of cool new stuff.

“When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

Of course, all of these are contradicted by social interaction. I mean, what will happen if some stranger tells you you’re unworthy, but your family and friends assure you otherwise? What will happen if the TV tells you you’re stupid or boring or ugly, but your active social life convinces people that you aren’t?

Well, the advertising just won’t work. That’s why they have to lure us away from outside activities, where we might get useful information about the real world and our place in it. Temptation comes in the form of The Sopranos, Harry Potter and American Idol.

Instead of youngsters gathering to shoot baskets, our Masters want them to while away the hours shooting virtual baskets in NBA video games. Even if they play together they don’t really interact, except for a few terse comments about the progress of the game. Splendid!

And pre-adolescents, who used to develop their imaginations, their bodies and their social skills in vigorous outdoor play, are now spending their free time with Mickey, Barney and Sponge Bob. Just the thing!

Rather than debating the issues of the day with the people around us—with whom we just might combine to make significant changes—we’re lured away by loud-mouthed partisans on the news channels and talk radio. These shows never seem to give any meaningful information on how to mobilize our friends and neighbors—the way that most important changes have been wrought—just endless sniping over manufactured ‘hot-button’ issues.

All of these media are structured in a manner designed to lead us away from spending any uncontrolled time socializing and learning from one another. They must invade every aspect of our lives in their quest for ever-larger shares of our money, our political power and, ultimately, our very souls.

But even if I’m completely wrong about all this sinister stuff, ponder this: One day you’ll be lying on your deathbed, feeling life slipping away. As we’ve all heard, people in this situation typically spend those last days pondering how their life was spent.

Now, when that time comes, I doubt you’ll be lamenting, “Oh, my life has been wasted! If only I’d spent more of my precious time listening to canned music and watching TV! If only I’d worked a few thousand extra hours away from my friends and family so I could’ve bought more cool stuff!”

No. I suspect you’ll bitterly regret each moment wasted on such idle diversions. You’ll curse every second spent away from the ones you love. You’ll long for just one more hour of life so you can cherish the simple joys of watching clouds move lazily across the sky, listening to the wind rustle through the forest trees, or overhearing the laughter of children at play.

And none of these cost a dime.




Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Dad and the Union Drive

Around 1970—the year I turned fourteen—my Father and I had gotten to a wonderful place in our relationship. Gradually, beginning a couple of years earlier, he had actually begun relating to me like an adult. While he still exercised his authority, he now respected me enough to explain the rationale behind his edicts, and was amenable to well-reasoned arguments against them.

And argue we did. Not just over matters of discipline, but about almost everything. Pop had a wide range of interests, liked to read and, even more, he liked to argue about the issues of the day. As I entered adolescence, I had begun to try out some new ideas that I had picked up from TV, teachers and elsewhere, so we had a broad palate of topics about which we could disagree.

You know how it is. When you’re young, Daddy and Mommy are almost always right. Since they’re pretty much your sole source of information about the world, your emotional security depends upon believing that it’s accurate (…even if it isn’t; therein, methinks, lies the root of neurosis). So the first opinions we hold about social and political issues are usually identical to those of our parents.

But as we get a little older, we begin to toy with different ideas. When conducting these experiments of the intellect, it helps to have people around you who hold divergent beliefs, so you can test yours against theirs. For anyone who’s really interested in learning, someone with whom you can argue can be a godsend.

Now, when I say ‘argue,’ some might get the idea that these were bitter, hostile exchanges. They weren’t. Without ever formally agreeing to any ground rules, we understood that our arguments wouldn’t do either of us any good if they descended into name-calling. So while we might argue very passionately for or against some idea, we never used phrases like, “that’s stupid,” or said, “bullshit,” (unless a concise explanation of why it was bullshit immediately followed).

We understood that any meaningful challenge of ideas depends upon honesty and proper respect. Failure to abide by these tenets will produce alienation and a fight, not mental stimulation; and that’s what we both wanted from it. So even though we often raised our voices or jabbed our fingers to make a point, it was done in the spirit of an intellectual joust among friends, not to intimidate or beat down the other. If you won your point, it wasn’t because you’d bullied or tricked your opponent, but because you had marshaled the best argument.

And since Pop was such an honest man, he’d admit it if you bested him. (At that tender age, I didn’t realize how amazingly rare this trait is.) True, his standard of proof was almost impossibly high, so it didn’t happen very often, but that was OK. My standards were pretty high too.

And come what may, agree or disagree, we always ended our arguments as friends.

I can still see him sitting across from me in the dining room after everyone else had gone off to begin their evenings, his face dimly illuminated by the reflected light from the kitchen as he gestured forcefully with the cigarette pinched between his knuckles. Three or four evenings a week, we’d sit there in semi-darkness (we never seemed to have the dining room lights on), happily arguing away the hours.

Over time, we came to talk about other things. As I said, these were among the most wonderful days in my memory because Pop was finally treating me like an equal. In addition to being his Son, I had now become his trusted friend and confidant. (And the fact that I still love a good argument—as defined above—is because I associate them with the bond I developed with my Father back then.)

In our discussions, he began confiding in me about personal matters as well. I remember, for example, hearing him describe in horror a dream he had where blood began pouring out of his mouth. He related how he had—in the dream—told my Mother to call for an ambulance while the awful certainty gripped him that he was dying. I can still remember the fear in his voice as he contemplated the moment of his own demise.

He also spoke of his troubles on the job. Indeed, it came to be a frequent topic of discussion. He was a Lab Technician at the main research facility of a big chemical company headquartered in our East Coast city. What irked him most was that, no matter how hard he tried, he didn’t receive an ‘Excellent’ rating when he had his annual performance review.

The four ratings given in these reviews were, Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor. Dad, after many years of Excellent ratings suddenly began getting only Good ones. He was baffled by this because he hadn’t slacked off during that time. Indeed, he carried his work ethic to an almost fanatical level, and had a drawer full of letters of commendation for going years without missing a single day’s work.

And yet, after about 1968, his rating never rose above Good. From then until he retired in the early 1980s, he always received the same rating. Whenever he asked his supervisor why he had been downgraded, the answers were always vague, like, “well, you forgot to initial such-and-such form six months ago,” or, “you have a negative attitude.” All he ever got was doubletalk.

This caused him no small amount of anguish because an Excellent rating was necessary if one were to hope to rise above Lab Technician level. If you didn’t, once you got to top salary as a Lab Tech (usually taking around ten to fifteen years, depending on your rating), you had nowhere to go for the remaining fifteen to twenty years until retirement. In order to be considered for one of the tiny handful of management slots, you had to have a string of Excellent ratings. Otherwise it was just a job, not a career.

In 1979 I was hired by the same company and was assigned to Pop’s department. After a couple years working in another building, I was transferred to the building where he worked. While we didn’t share a lab, we were able to spend our twice-daily coffee breaks together.

Each morning and afternoon, the same four or five of us gathered in the laboratory of our friend, Mark. We congregated there because it was the only lab on the fourth floor: a land where bosses rarely tread. It was a comfortable spot where we could get away from the prying eyes of the Wardens of our Institution.

One of the regulars was a fellow named Irv. About five years younger than Dad, he was the only member of management in our little group. Because he started out as a Lab Tech like the rest of us and, as Transfer Coordinator, he wasn’t actually anybody’s boss, we accepted him as one of us.

Besides, he was a hell of a nice guy. About fifty-five at the time, he stood a slim 5’6”, had neatly groomed, salt and pepper hair slicked back, and one of those 1940s mustaches, a thin little thing that barely clung to the edge of his upper lip.

He was perfectly suited for the position of Transfer Coordinator. When someone new came into the department, it was his job to pick their assignment from among the available openings. (I later found out that my initial appointment to one of the easiest jobs in the department was thanks to him.) But his main duty was to smooth ruffled feathers.

Whenever a technician had a beef with his boss (usually a chemist or engineer), it was Irv’s job to intercede and try to patch things up. Failing that, he could switch the technician to a different assignment if the dispute was insoluble. But most of the time a patient, friendly voice was all that was needed to quell any discontent. Irv’s abundant charm and calm, reasonable demeanor made him a natural for the job.

And it was his charm which ensured that, during the twenty or so years they shared their coffee, cigarettes and confidences twice a day, Irv and Pop would become good friends.

I liked him too. Always nice to me, he had an easy smile and could tell a funny story with the best of them. He came off like a regular sort of guy, so I never saw any reason to doubt his sincerity.

Quite some time later, I discovered the truth about Irv.

It was the late 1980s and Pop had been retired for a few years. No longer going to the fourth floor for my coffee and cigarettes, I’d found another isolated spot (a ‘bum’s nest,’ as we called them) in the lab of my buddy Paul. He shared the lab with Jim who, at around fifty-five, had known and worked with my Dad for many years.

One day I was hanging out—waiting for Paul to come back from some errand or other—and I got talking to Jim. Somehow the conversation came ‘round to the topic of labor unions. Back in the late 1960s, a major national union had attempted to organize our site. They had already been successful at a few of the company’s manufacturing plants, and were now seeking to represent the research facilities as well.

I remember Pop telling me at the time that he had attended some union meetings and, in our nightly discussions, we weighed the pros and cons of the proposition. As I recall, he decided to vote in favor of the union and even went so far as to become a member in the weeks leading up to the vote. But when the campaign failed, he let his membership lapse and the talk of unions quickly ceased. He never mentioned it again.

“It was that union campaign that wrecked your Father’s career,” Jim told me in his lab, some twenty years after the fact. “The chemist I worked with in those days told me, ‘I’m not supposed to say anything about this, but don’t go to any union meetings. Irv has been attending and writing down the names of everyone there. If you value your future with this company, stay away from the union!’”

“That’s how Irv got his job as Transfer Coordinator and that’s why your Dad never advanced past Lab Technician,” Jim went on. “He was such a meticulous worker, they couldn’t come up with any excuse to fire him. But they could delay his raises and keep him from ever going anywhere, and that’s what they did.”

Perhaps it’s best that Papa was too far gone with Alzheimer’s to understand the news I received that day. His awful affliction spared him the knowledge that one of his best friends had so heartlessly betrayed him. By the time I learned of it, he was beyond the sting of such cruel lessons.

Now you might think I hate Irv, but I don’t. It took me awhile, but I came to understand that he was just as much a victim as my Father. After all, he was one of a chosen few Lab Techs who had gotten a leg-up into management. Many of the company’s top honchos had begun their ascent to lofty positions after taking that crucial first step.

So when his superiors (!) told Irv they wanted him to spy on his friends, he knew he had no choice but to comply. All of his hopes for a future in management hinged on severing the sacred bonds that are essential for true friendship. His ambition demanded he accept this Devil’s Bargain.

And we wonder why the soul of our society is so desperately ill, with all of us caught up in the daily rat race (and each day becoming more like rats ourselves). When the profits and power of a few depend upon the absolute destruction of our most basic social bond: the trust among friends; how can our society not begin to die as the result?

Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t evil to have ambition—we all want to do the best we can for ourselves and our families—but it has to be kept in its proper perspective. When we attach greater importance to our careers than we do to the ties of family (as with absentee, workaholic parents), or friendship (like Irv did), we’ve surrendered to the devil’s most cunning weapons: the twin idols of Vanity and Gold.

So I don’t hate poor Irv, I pity him. He sold his very soul for a passel of promises.

…And they were empty promises, as it turned out. Irv never rose above Transfer Coordinator. He retired a year or so later and died shortly after that.